Art School Confidential (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

For Art School Confidential, director Terry Zwigoff has re-teamed with Daniel Clowes for an offbeat and bitingly satirical look at the college era coming of age story. Considering Zwigoff's resume, which includes Bad Santa and Ghost World (based on one of Clowes' comic series), one should not expect Art School Confidential to be a cheerful romantic comedy/underdog overcomes tale. In fact, this is as dark as Zwigoff has gotten - arguably even darker than Bad Santa. And, while it's legitimate to label Art School Confidential as a "comedy," the movie is more clever than it is funny.

Zwigoff and Clowes have two apparent goals with this film. For the first, they parody the popular genre in which a virgin goes off to college and falls in love with a beautiful co-ed while trying to make his mark on campus. For the second, they send up the elitist and pretentious world of art, where the more obtuse the work, the more celebrated it becomes. One professor is hailed for his visionary style of painting triangles. A student's drawing, which is little more than scribbles, is lauded for its freshness and humanity. The reason Art School Confidential works, however, is because the filmmakers choose not to make a mockery out of their lead characters. Rather than ridiculing Jerome (Max Minghella) and Audrey (Sophia Myles), the film treats them respectfully and allows the audience to sympathize with them.

Jerome has come to art school to hone his craft of painting - and to get laid. Okay, so being an 18-year-old virgin may not be impressive as being a member of the 40-year-old club, but it can be an ego-killer. The young man shortly discovers two muses. One is fellow student Audrey, whom he first encounters when she poses as a nude model in the class of Professor Sandiford (John Malkovich). He strikes up a friendship with her and, although he lusts after her, he remains a gentleman. She treats him more like a brother than a potential lover. Jerome's other influence is Jimmy (Jim Broadbent), a misanthrope given to bouts of violent temper, whose outrage at the hypocrisy of man knows no bounds.

Jerome's artistic endeavors aren't going well. His paintings are seen as too conventional by his oddball fellow classmates. And a handsome poser named Jonah (Mat Keeslar) is not only taking the spotlight in Professor Sandiford's class, but has replaced Jerome as the guy Audrey would most like to spend time with. All of this transpires against a gloomy backdrop - the school's environs are being stalked by a serial killer who has just strangled victim #5.

If the devil is in the details, then Zwigoff has caged this demon. Art School Confidential starts with that age-old college ritual: moving-in day. 20 seconds took me back 20 years. As far afield as the film goes at some points, there are always recognizable touchstones that keep it grounded. Even as you observe the satire, you recognize nuggets of your college experiences in what these characters are going through.

One of the film's most uncompromising scenes occurs in an auditorium. An ex-student turned famous artist has come back for a Q&A session on stage. After blasting the professor moderating the discussion and denouncing the rest of the faculty as failures, he declares that the students in the audience are wasting their money. He claims that art cannot be taught. One either is an artist or is not. Someone asks him why he's such an asshole. He responds that that's his true nature and he has enough fame and money that he doesn't have to hide it.

Is it a commentary on the current state of American acting (where classical training is almost a thing of the past) that three of the most prominent roles in Art School Confidential are filled by British-born thespians (using impeccable American accents)? Sophia Myles, seen most recently in Tristan + Isolde, is as attractive as she is talented. Max Minghella (son of director Anthony) shows ability beyond his short resume. And Jim Broadbent is, as always, superb (and, in this case, disturbing). Zwigoff does not rely exclusively on imports from the U.K. John Malkovich is on hand in a typically nutty part, and Steve Buscemi and Angelica Huston make appearances.

Art School Confidential has a similar feel to Ghost World, although it is a self-contained story rather than a sequel. The film freely crosses genres - romance, parody, comedy, mystery - without caring that there are times when the transitions are bumpy and the ingredients begin to curdle. Overall, however, Art School Confidential works because it provides nicely developed characters to accompany us on the journey into black satire, and because it refuses to pull punches. Art School Confidential shows the kind of backbone needed by limp parodies like Thank You for Smoking and American Dreamz.

Art School Confidential (United States, 2006)

Director: Terry Zwigoff
Cast: Max Minghella, Sophia Myles, Matt Keeslar, John Malkovich, Jim Broadbent, Anjelica Huston, Steve Buscemi
Screenplay: Daniel Clowes
Cinematography: Jamie Anderson
Music: David Kitay
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Run Time: 1:42
U.S. Release Date: 2006-05-05
MPAA Rating: "R" (Nudity, Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1